Latest Import From China: Filthy Air

ByABC News
March 27, 2006, 10:01 AM

March 27, 2006 — -- Glance around the room. That lamp, this keyboard, your socks. Chances are they were all made in China, while inside your computer is software likely written in India.

Americans are surrounded by the fruits of Asia's explosive rise, and years of steady importing and outsourcing have created winners and losers on both sides of the globalization boom. But the next phase could prove harmful for everyone -- because even the air we breathe could be made in China.

For years, air quality in the United States has been steadily improving, which is why atmospheric scientists were puzzled when they recently measured sulphur, mercury and PCBs -- an industrial byproduct pollutant -- blowing onto the Washington coast. Using a pollution-sniffing airplane and computer models, they traced the unwelcome import 3,000 miles across the Pacific.

One trip to Shanghai or Delhi and the source is obvious: A grimy haze, thick as London fog, covers the teeming urban centers. Seven of the world's 10 most-polluted cities are in China. "Clean air days" are counted in Beijing, and the official air-quality goal is "only" three days of sun-blotting pollution each week.

It is the price of a growth rate unprecedented in human history. A perfect storm of old and new pollution. Hundreds of millions still heat and light their homes with crude coal and kerosene while they steadily move from bicycles to Buicks.

Experts predict that by 2030, China will match American carbon-dioxide output, and that gas is the main culprit behind global warming. It provides a monumental challenge for Western leaders: How do we persuade them to do as we say, not as we do? After all, they are simply living their own version of the American dream.

"Look at someone in a slum in Delhi," said R.K. Pachuri, director of India's Energy and Resource Institute. "He doesn't have any furniture, but he has a small television and he watches all the channels that are popular in the U.S. It's going to fuel dreams. It's going to fuel desires. Developed countries harping on this issue is somewhat unfair, because it's time the developed countries begin changing the way they grow. You have the infrastructure, the technologies and incomes to produce more efficient automobiles. It is about setting an example."